Giving Young People a Voice: El Sistema USA

by Amy Nathan

Cover_MPSG“Music is my life. I will never stop playing cello,” says Vanessa Johnson, one of the young people whose early experiences with music are featured in the book The Music Parents’ Survival Guide, published in 2014. Since more than five years have passed since this book went to press, we are checking in with some of the youngsters to see how they are doing, focusing on those who participated in free after-school programs inspired by El Sistema, Venezuela’s music-education system which emphasizes ensemble playing right from the start.

In the Music Parents’ book, a photo shows Vanessa as a second grader finishing her first year in Cleveland’s El Sistema@Rainey program. She started on violin, then switched to cello, and soon began taking private cello lessons, too, in addition to the El Sistema classes and ensembles. A ninth grader now, she aged out of the program this year, but has been back to visit several times. The high school she attends doesn’t have an orchestra, but she is continuing with her cello lessons and hopes to audition for a youth orchestra to keep cello in her life. She feels the El Sistema program and her cello playing have helped her with school work.


Vanessa Johnson (second from right) as a beginning string player, performing in 2012 with El Sistema@Rainey students and with others from a similar program in Cincinnati—My Cincinnati. Photo Credit: © Mark Silverberg, Courtesy El Sistema@Rainey

“Music is math. It has a lot of fractions. That helps me deal with fractions and everything else. But the best thing about music is it’s everywhere. When you walk down the street, you hear music, not actual music, but you hear your surroundings making music. I have thought about writing music. I’m good at improvising.”

Vanessa Johnson 2018

Vanessa Johnson with her cello in 2018.   Photo Credit: Courtesy El Sistema@Rainey

Asia Palmer is also good at improvising, something this flutist has been doing in improvisational composition workshops offered by OrchKids, an El Sistema-inspired program in Baltimore. Asia’s mother, Lynette Fields, spoke in The Music Parents’ Survival Guide about Asia and her brothers’ participation in OrchKids back when they were in elementary school. Now in its eleventh year, OrchKids has expanded beyond the early grades to keep older students involved, such as Asia and her twin brother, Andre, a percussionist, who have been with the program since it started. High schoolers now, they still take part in OrchKids workshops, do some mentoring of younger students, and have also won scholarships to study at Peabody Preparatory and at Interlochen Music Camp.

“OrchKids opened doors for me,” says Asia. “It helped me get into Baltimore School for the Arts. If not for OrchKids, I would probably listen to one or two genres. My playlist is all over the place—Beyoncé, Coldplay, Brahms. I like to create my own music, a mixture of pop, funk, and jazz. Music helped with schoolwork, too, helps me concentrate.”

Obama Palmer Trahey

Asia Palmer (center) with Dan Trahey, OrchKids’ Artistic Liaison, accepting the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in 2013 from First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo Credit: Courtesy OrchKids.

A senior this year, she has started auditioning for music programs at conservatories and colleges, performing flute selections from Mozart, Bach, and Fauré.

“Classical from different time periods and styles—that’s what they’re looking for. They know I can also play other genres,” she explains. “I was nervous at the first audition, but it wasn’t that bad. I practiced a lot, but I didn’t over-practice right before. Some people play and play in the warm-up space they give you at auditions and then when they get to the audition, they have no chops left.”

Her first auditions have gone well. As she told a New York Times reporter, the OrchKids program “has given me a voice. I feel like I can be whatever, do whatever—strive.”

These two young women’s self-confidence aligns with results of two recent studies of El Sistema-inspired programs. A 2015-2017 Wolf Brown study of third-to-fifth graders in twelve El Sistema USA programs found marked differences between those youngsters and a group from the same grades, classrooms, and schools who weren’t in the music programs. El Sistema children showed gains in what the study calls “growth mindset. . . the belief that one’s basic qualities—such as intelligence or musical ability—are due to one’s actions and efforts rather than to a fixed trait or talent.”

Growth mindset is thought to help with school success. The study also found that the El Sistema boys had higher rates of cooperation and perseverance than non-El Sistema boys. A study of a Los Angeles El Sistema program—YOLA (Youth Orchestra of LA)—found that YOLA students showed an increase in believing that “making mistakes—and working through them—is how one eventually succeeds,” another helpful mindset for academic success.

El Sistema USA has also made progress in the five years since the Music Parents’ book came out. El Sistema USA started in 2009 as a loose alliance of El Sistema-inspired programs, but in 2016 became more organized with 501(c)3 nonprofit status and an official headquarters at Duke University, whose researchers have helped the group define its core values, develop a membership process, and a list of new initiatives to pursue. With 110 member programs in nearly every state, El Sistema USA is introducing new training support for its teachers and is partnering with other music organizations to provide opportunities for older students who age out of the programs’ elementary-school-focused after-school offerings.

At their January 2019 El Sistema USA National Symposium in Detroit, faculty from different El Sistema programs participated in workshops to learn new teaching techniques, as well as ideas for community engagement and fundraising. Asia Palmer was one of the instructors in a workshop that showed teachers how to do “collective composition” workshops like the ones she has participated in at OrchKids. She notes, “The mentoring I’ve done with younger students at OrchKids prepared me to teach the adults at the El Sistema symposium.”

“We are heavily represented in urban America now,” says Katie Wyatt, El Sistema USA’s executive director. “I would like to see more representation in rural parts of the country. Our next research question with Duke is to look at the impact of El Sistema programs on parents.”

OrchKids has had a big impact on Asia’s mother, who works as a site coordinator at one of the seven schools that offer OrchKids programs. She has also learned to play recorder, one of the first instruments OrchKids students play.

“I’m learning along with the kids,” says Ms. Fields.


Amy Nathan is an award-winning author of several books on music including The Music Parents’ Survival Guide: A Parent-to-Parent Conversation, and two earlier books for young people, The Young Musician’s Survival Guide: Tips From Teens and Pros and Meet the Musicians: From Prodigy (or Not) to Pro. Her newest bookMaking Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music into Your Busy Lifeis for and about amateur musicians. A Harvard graduate with master’s degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Columbia’s Teachers College, she is the mother of two musical sons: one a composer, Eric Nathan, and the other a saxophone-playing political scientist.

This blog article is adapted from one that appeared on July 31, 2018 on the Oxford University Press Music Blog

One thought on “Giving Young People a Voice: El Sistema USA

  1. One of my greatest joys is watching young people discover their potential through music. Sadly, classical music seems to be falling by the wayside with cutbacks in art education. Yet, the internet does keep these cherished melodies alive.


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